Sooner or later everybody has a first job. These days, it seems like the older you are the younger you were when you had your first money-making venture. I was doing an icebreaker activity at church once when we all had to share what our first dip was in the career pool. There were a few babysitters and lawn mowers. A lifeguard. A hod carrier. A corn detassler. A couple of camp counselors, an umpire, and, some that asked if you’d like fries with that. Are you thinking back to your first job? When you first started to develop a work ethic? When it was my turn, I nonchalantly told them that my first job was loading gunpowder into bullets for my neighbor…a dime per bullet. Apparently, that’s not normal. I mean the looks on their faces clearly showed that. I guess I never really thought about it. It was my normal. I was 8 or 9 at the time and happy to have my first paid gig. I mean someone’s got to put the gunpowder into the brass, right? If it makes you feel any better, my neighbor was a police officer…does that help?
Not too long ago, I was having a cup of coffee with one of my favorite donors and for some reason our first jobs came up. He mentioned that at a very young age, probably around 5, that his parents ‘hired’ him for his first job. With a big pile of rocks in front of him, it was his job to remove the little rocks and place them in a coffee can that they provided—I picture an old empty metal Folger’s can. Once the can was filled, he would show his parents, and then empty it into a new little rock pile to earn a whole nickel per can. A nickel a can! Granted, this would have been in the 1930’s, but even so, that’s a lot of work for a nickel. You can see why my friend, Jack, credited his parents with his lifelong work ethic. They started him out young, with a job most kids today wouldn’t do for a dollar a can, much less a nickel. Can-by-can, Jack, and most likely his brothers Bill and Dick, learned the value of a hard day’s work and the humility of true gentlemen through this menial task. I like to think Jack’s wise parents knew that hard work + humility would = generosity. As the co-owners of Irving Brother’s Gravel Company, Jack, Bill, and Dick humbly worked hard and have a lifetime of generosity to show for it. I admire how they were able to turn those little rocks into big rocks.
You’ve heard the story, Big Rocks, right? There are many different versions of the story, but it’s worth a refresher if you’ve heard it and an introduction if you haven’t—it’s a game-changer. This version’s called Big Rocks and Beer.
A meteorology professor stood before his Meteorology 101 class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty glass jar and proceeded to fill it with big rocks. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
The professor then picked up a jar of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open spaces between the big rocks. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.
The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar and, of course, the sand filled up the empty space. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous yes.
The professor then produced two cans of beer from under the table and then proceeded to pour the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the grains of sand. The students laughed.
“Now,” said the professor, as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The big rocks are the important things — your family, your spouse, your health, your children, your friends, your favorite passions — things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.”
“The pebbles are the other things that matter, like your job, your house, your car.”
“The sand is everything else — the small stuff. If you put the sand into the jar first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the big rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you.”
Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical check-ups. Take your partner out dancing. Play another 18. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party, and fix the disposal. Take care of the big rocks first — the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”
One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the beer represented. The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of beers.”
I’m sure with countless years and hours spent at the quarry, Jack knew the big rocks lesson well. He could have written it himself, but instead he simply lived it out every day of his life. He was a friend of the Community Foundation and one of the most generous men I’ve ever met. I enjoyed every cup of coffee I ever drank with Jack–black with cream only. And, the hugs he’d give me before he left the office demonstrated that he was a cheerful giver. But, my favorite part was what happened just before Jack walked out the door. I’d always thank him for his abundant generosity and then he’d get a feisty look in his eyes and humbly say, “Don’t thank me yet…that check might bounce!” Anyone who ever felt the years of hard labor in a Jack Irving handshake knew that no check of his would ever bounce. And, his generosity all started, not with a cup of coffee, but with a coffee can and a bunch of small rocks—work ethic built a nickel at a time.
Oddly enough, I bet Jack generously donated a nickel for every little rock he ever picked up–because his parents knew that work ethic, humility, and generosity could be taught. I hope with all my heart that this isn’t old-school thinking; that adults are teaching and kids nowadays are still learning about the big rocks of life.
Jack Irving passed away on August 10, 2017. But, hard work, humility, and generosity did not. They live on in Jack’s family and through all who knew him. But, they can live on through you, too. After all, I learned it through making bullets for 10 cents a shot. And, if you’re not sure if you’re living life the big rocks way, it’s worthy of a renewed conversation–perhaps over a couple of beers with a hearty toast to a great man, Jack Irving.